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Are skin rashes contagious?
There are contagious and noncontagious skin rashes. To make this broad topic more manageable, the following is a list of general categories of rashes that are considered noncontagious:
- Seborrheic dermatitis
- Atopic dermatitis
- Contact dermatitis
- Stasis dermatitis
- Nummular eczema
- Drug eruptions
- Heat rash (miliaria)
- Diaper rash
Since the real question to be answered is what rashes are contagious, the remainder of this short article will address most of those rashes that are considered contagious; not all experts agree on these designations, so readers concerned about a rash are urged to discuss their individual condition with their physician.
Rashes that are considered by many physicians to be contagious are as follows:
- Molluscum contagiosum (viral)
- Impetigo (bacterial)
- Herpes (herpes simplex, types 1 and 2 viruses)
- Rash caused by Neisseria meningitides (N. meningitides) (bacterial)
- Rash and blisters that accompany shingles (herpes zoster virus)
- Ringworm (fungal) infections (tinea)
- Scabies (itch mite)
- Chickenpox (viral)
- Measles and rubella (viral)
- Erythema infectiosum (viral)
- Pityriasis rosea (viral)
- Cellulitis and erysipelas (bacterial)
- Lymphangitis (bacterial)
- Folliculitis (bacterial)
This list is not exhaustive but covers many of the rashes that people may encounter. The definition of contagious depends on whether the rash itself can be spread or the infection that causes the rash can be spread, so some experts may not agree with the designations above. For example, in some cases, the rash is contagious in that someone can get the rash from another person with the rash. In other cases, a person with a rash may be at risk of spreading the infection that caused the rash (which may not necessarily cause a rash in the person who gets infected).
How will I know if I have a contagious rash?
Often, rashes appear in children and adults. Even though some of the "contagious" rashes have fairly typical presentations (for example, shingles has a reddish rash, usually with blisters, develops on one side of the body along the area supplied by one nerve) but not always. Consequently, if you have had contact with a person who has a known contagious disease that forms a rash, you should contact a physician. Similarly, if you're concerned about a rash that has developed, a physician and/or dermatologist can help diagnose your skin condition. A conservative way to approach rashes is to consider all of them contagious until proven otherwise.
How do contagious rashes spread?
Most contagious rashes spread from person to person by direct contact. Many of the rashes are itchy and spread when an infected individual scratches the rash and then touches or scratches another individual who is not yet infected. However, some rashes can easily spread by indirect contact; for example, ringworm can be easily spread from the locker room floor to another individual by simply walking on the contaminated floor.
How will I know when I am cured of a contagious rash?
The possible cure of the contagious rash depends on the underlying cause of the rash. For example, once an individual has been appropriately treated with antibiotics for N. meningitidis infection, the rash and the patient usually become noncontagious after about 24-48 hours and the rash slowly disappears. To help determine the underlying cause and cure for your rash, speak with a physician.
When should I contact a medical caregiver about a rash?
In most cases, if an individual has a noncontagious rash or a noncontagious cause of the rash, there is no need to contact a medical caregiver emergently unless the rash or and/or underlying cause is rapidly spreading.
If you suspect you have been exposed to a contagious rash, contact your physician early to get appropriate advice and treatment. However, if you know you have been exposed to the rash caused by N. meningitidis, you should contact a medical caregiver emergently. If you have a rash that is shedding or sloughing off patches or large areas of skin, this is considered a medical emergency and the person should be seen quickly in an emergency department.
IMAGESBrowse through our medical image collection to see pictures of the most common, and uncommon, skin conditions See Images
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Grimm, L. "14 Rashes You Need to Know: Common Dermatologic Diagnoses." Medscape.com. Oct. 19, 2017. <https://reference.medscape.com/features/slideshow/skin-rashes>.
United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Disease (Neisseria meningitidis)." Mar. 10, 2017. <http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/meningococcal-disease>.
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CellulitisCellulitis is an acute spreading bacterial infection below the surface of the skin characterized by redness, warmth, inflammation, and pain. The most common cause of cellulitis is the bacteria staph (Staphylococcus aureus).
FolliculitisFolliculitis is a skin condition that causes small red bumps to form around the hair follicles. Skin bacteria such as Staphylococcus and Pseudomonas may infect the follicles. Treatment involves over-the-counter bacterial washes, topical antibiotics, and/or topical steroids.
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Heat RashHeat rash is a skin irritation caused by excessive sweating. It can occur at any age and it appears as a rash that itches or feels prickly, and looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters.
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Herpes Simplex Infections (Non-Genital)Herpes simplex infections are common and when they appear around the mouth and lips, people often refer to them as "cold sores" and "fever blisters." Canker sores are different than cold sores. Air droplets can spread the virus, as can direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. Cold sore treatment include over-the-counter medication, as well as prescription medications.
ImpetigoImpetigo is a contagious skin infection caused by staph and strep bacteria. There are two types of impetigo: nonbullous and bullous. Symptoms of nonbullous impetigo include small blisters on the nose, face, arms, or legs and possibly swollen glands. Bullous impetigo signs include blisters in various areas, particularly in the buttocks area. Treatment involves gentle cleansing, removing the crusts of popped blisters, and the application of prescription-strength mupirocin antibiotic ointment.
ItchItching can be a common problem. Itches can be localized or generalized. There are many causes of itching to include: infection (jock itch, vaginal itch), disease (hyperthyroidism, liver or kidney), reactions to drugs, and skin infestations (pubic or body lice). Treatment for itching varies depending on the cause of the itch.
RashThe word "rash" means an outbreak of red bumps on the body. The way people use this term, "a rash" can refer to many different skin conditions. The most common of these are scaly patches of skin and red, itchy bumps or patches all over the place.
RingwormThe term "ringworm" or "ringworms" refers to fungal infections that are on the surface of the skin. A physical examination of the affected skin, evaluation of skin scrapings under the microscope, and culture tests can help doctors make the appropriate distinctions. A proper diagnosis is essential to successful treatment. Among the different types of ringworm are the following: tinea barbae, tinea capitis, tinea corporis, tinea cruris, tinea faciei, tinea manus, tinea pedis, and tinea unguium.
Scabies are itch mites that burrow under the skin and produce intense itching that's usually worse at night. Symptoms of scabies are small bumps and blisters on the wrists, knees, between the fingers, on the back of the elbows, in the groin and on the buttocks. Treatment involves applying a mite-killing cream, antihistamines for itch relief, washing bedclothes and linens.
Shingles (Herpes Zoster)Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the varicella zoster virus. Other shingles symptoms include headache, fever, nausea, and body aches. Treatment focuses on pain management and shortening the duration of the illness with antiviral medications.
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